King Roger Federer one match from 18th Grand Slam
Swiss beats compatriot Stan Wawrinka in five thrilling sets to reach Melbourne final
Roger Federer beat compatriot Stan Wawrinka in five sets to reach the Australian Open final. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty
Roger Federer will compete for his 18th grand slam singles title after defeating compatriot Stan Wawrinka in a gripping five-set Australian Open semi-final at Rod Laver Arena.
The world No17 triumphed 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3 across three hours and five minutes in Melbourne, keeping alive the dream he might meet arch-rival Rafael Nadal in a retro-flavoured final.
Once these two players shared a quite convivial master-apprentice relationship, but not for some time. “The day came where he didn’t call me so much any more,” Federer noted in the lead-up to this encounter. He also figured nobody in the world bar Nadal knew his game better.
Knowing is one thing, delivering is another. Two sets down and limping, Wawrinka looked done. But his minor genius is to look flushed and mildly flustered at all times, like a man struggling through his first gym session in months, when he’s actually as strong as an ox and resilient beyond expectation.
The first set provided 50 minutes of utterly compelling tennis, Wawrinka looking the dominant force whenever a rally built but Federer defending with such light-footed brilliance it was always going to be hard to split them.
In football the cliche is that the best defensive team will always beat the best attacking one, and Federer’s efforts to stay in points that looked doomed proved crucial in the first set. Typical was a defensive, half-volley backhand slice from mid-court early in proceedings, which had seemed a metre past him when he made contact.
At 5-5 Wawrinka mustered a break point but was expertly manoeuvred from wing to wing and couldn’t retrieve a running forehand, so Federer held. It seemed inconceivable a tie-break would be avoided, but serving at 5-6 Wawrinka blinked, losing his bearings for all of a minute and letting his opponent slip through the back door. On set point Federer pushed him wide on the forehand and the world No4 cannoned it into the net to concede.
The second set hinged on Wawrinka’s third service game. Federer caressed a forehand winner to make it 30-0 and then found himself with two break points. Wawrinka saved one, then had Federer out-positioned in a rally, but advancing to mid-court he clattered a regulation backhand into the net and drew a mass intake of breath.
Unable to break the offending racket by throwing it to the ground, Wawrinka calmly snapped it over his knee, as if to rid himself of its suddenly dark aura. It sat courtside as a reminder of the split-second errors that would define the result. With a clinical love service game Federer closed out the set in 31 minutes. His head covered in a towel and wearing a pained expression, Wawrinka promptly left the arena for a medical time-out.
The world No4 returned with his right knee bandaged at the start of the third set, his shoulders slouched and his spirit sagging, but far bigger trouble was brewing for Federer. The inexplicable happened in Federer’s second service game when he faded completely to cough up three break points. Wawrinka struck with the second, and made it a double break soon after. He took the set 6-1 in 26 minutes as Melburnians sat in stunned silence. It was like a perfectly executed burglary in a sleepy town.
Wawrinka became far more obtrusive from there, breaking immediately in the fourth set by unfurling a wondrous cross-court backhand winner. Earlier in the match he’d been given the runaround. Now it was time to stand and deliver. But nor was the four-time champion done, breaking straight back from a heart-stopping rally.
The heightened stakes and rising din elevated the contest. Even on one good leg Wawrinka was a menace. It had looked destined for a tie-break but in the ninth game, with a deft forehand passing shot, Wawrinka broke and ensured a fifth set – still ruddy-faced and downbeat in his manner but playing with genuine swagger as he sealed it in 38 minutes.
Now it was Federer’s turn for medical treatment. Eight minutes on, wrapped in towels and trying to loosen fatigued limbs, Wawrinka looked none too pleased about the prospect of his body seizing up on him and burying his chances.
Federer returned calm but the match went a little haywire. Wawrinka had a chance to break him in the fifth game of the decider but Federer dug in his heels, then broke serve himself after Wawrinka sent down an untimely double fault. The buffer proved insurmountable, and Federer triumphed with a polite pump of the fist and a quarter-smile suggesting a job half-done.
A confluence of events have aided this remarkable situation in which three players aged 35 or over have now qualified for their respective singles final, chief among them a spell of mild weather in Melbourne, and in the case of the men’s draw the early exit of the two most fancied contenders.
But you don’t stumble into a grand slam final. Federer forced his way in with brilliant tennis at the right time, just as sure as the Williams sisters did earlier in the day. That he’s hovered near the top echelon for so long after his absolute prime is a statistical marvel of course, but that is nothing on the thrill of it in the flesh.